Dentists Chair: Dark Humour With Teeth

By Dominion Post

Indian Ink Theatre Company doesn’t rest on its laurels. Its latest and long-awaited play begins with a vaudevillian double-act with a song and some crude jokes about melons and bananas that acts as a prologue which foreshadows not only the plot to come but also the sudden switches from humour to something dark and scary that Stephen Sondheim might be proud of.
We learn later that the man is William Kemmier, who was the first man in the United States to be executed by the electric chair for murdering his wife. The chair was invented by a dentist called Albert Southwick.

There’s another dentist in another place and time also called Albert Southwick who is troubled with guilt from a tragic accident in his past and by his wife Judy’s affair with an old flame. Not only is he haunted by the terrors of the modern world, from which God has excused himself, he is also haunted by the lively presence of the ghost of William Kemmier.

His life is changed when he and Judy hire a cleaner, Ruth, with very bad teeth. Dental problems aside, Ruth has had trouble with her church, which called her a witch and excommunicated her. She believes God has guided her to Albert Southwick for a purpose, but the end result is to release passions among all the characters that seem uncontrollable.

This may make it all sound very gloomy, but in fact the complex twists and turns of the story, which are littered with biblical references (a snake, apples, guilt, punishment, and rain), are played out in a heightened theatrical style of masks, songs and nightmare-sized dental equipment that is able to switch from humour to darkness with ease.

It is all carried off with a smooth professionalism that is readily evident in John Verryt’s startling setting of solid scenery mixed with translucent plastic screens, David Ward’s marvellously gritty songs and the musicianship of David Ward and Isaac Smith who also play dental patients.

Southwick is played by Jacob Rajan with Chaplinesque pathos as he finds the courage in the end to carry on living and chasing butterflies. Ruth is played by Mia Blake as a repressed young woman who will inevitably explode and Peta Rutter is both sharp and vulnerable as Judy.

Gareth Williams is superb as Kemmier. His sings with real panache and force and he lifts every scene he appears in. When he sings Welcome to the Murder House something sinister invades the theatre.